The ultimate leadership test

New spear New spear: A Scorpene attack submarine built at the Mazagon Dock, Mumbai | Vishnu V. Nair

The command of a submarine is the ultimate goal for any submariner, that breed of men (and, now, women, too, in some navies) who wear the “dolphins” on their chest with pride and humility. A badge with twin dolphins is worn by submariners in most navies, though the design may differ.

An appointment as captain is the recognition of an individual’s professional competence, personal integrity, selfless commitment and dedication to the profession, combined with honing one’s skills over many years, perhaps in the most inhospitable environment known to man. It is a little known fact that space missions studied conditions on board submarines before sending people into space.

Those who have not lived it cannot fathom it. Working and living for weeks on end in a sealed steel cylinder deep below the sea surface. Sharing cramped living and working space with fellow crew. Retaining peak fighting efficiency despite all the psychological and physiological stress endemic to such an environment.

Despite passing successfully through this crucible, potential captains are put through the extremely demanding commanding officer’s qualifying course. Called the ‘Perisher’ globally, this course has a high attrition rate; some have not passed the course despite being submariners for over a decade.

Many submariners go on to high ranks and extremely successful naval careers. However, a submarine command is the undisputed gold standard. Command of a submarine demands a deep understanding of the gravity of the honour, the responsibility it bestows, the accountability and the humility it expects. In a submarine, unlike any other platform, the buck stops with the captain. From the moment the last rope is slipped from the pier, the crew turns to the captain, and he has no one to turn to.

A submarine operates independently, and, unlike a surface or air platform, does not communicate with the outside world. So, commanding officers at sea are expected to take bold and independent decisions. Interestingly, no badges of rank are worn at sea. The crew respects a firm, but fair captain. A weakness in personality or competence stands cruelly exposed at sea. Hence, a submarine captain has to be one with the crew, but not one of the crew.

Submarines constitute the cutting edge of a nation’s offensive maritime capability across the entire spectrum, be it strategic, operational or tactical. In an escalating maritime crisis, it is the submarine with its inherent advantages of stealth, concealment and lethal firepower that will be the first to go in harm’s way. The Indian Navy’s submarine arm, which will turn 48 in December, has an enviable track record.

The effect of hitting first and hitting hard can render an enemy’s navy largely ineffective, as it happened in the 1982 Falklands conflict. The sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano by HMS Conqueror was the turning point as the Argentine surface fleet did not venture to engage with the Royal Navy Task Force thereafter.

Despite its superior numbers and capability, the task force, too, expended more than half its anti-submarine ammunition and weapons on false submarine contacts since the Argentine submarine, the San Luis, was suspected to be in the vicinity—such is the debilitating psychological effect a submarine can bring to bear even on a superior enemy force. In the three decades since, despite advancement in technology, this fundamental fact has not changed.

A retired commodore of the Indian Navy, the writer commanded four submarines. He is now vice president, Indian Maritime Foundation.

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